The recently-concluded Bihar election cliffhanger had seen every party try its hand at virtual campaigns. This in a state where internet penetration remains comparatively low.
Recent internet subscription data released by TRAI stated that there were a total of 43.88 million (4 crores approximately) subscribers in Bihar as of September 2019, which translated to 30.68 subscribers per 100 people - the lowest ratio among states. (This was leaving out the North East, where data was given for the entire region.)
So, even if parties succeeded in scaling up their internet presence, the rewards could have been limited - even for the mighty IT wing of the BJP. But where did the parties focus their energies on during elections?
Nothing beats WhatsApp
More than sites like Twitter and Facebook, it was WhatsApp that captured the imagination of campaigners and with good reason. The messaging app has long become the layman's companion and its groups provide a perfect platform to dispatch propaganda to a large number of people at one go.
"In rural Bihar, unhindered electricity throughout the day is still a miracle. So, it is no wonder that the impact of social media is negligible. But WhatsApp forwards always initiate political discussions and people share them depending on their leanings," said a voter who didn't wish to be named.
V Arun Kumar, central coordinator of 'Mahagathbandhan' member CPI-ML's social media team, agreed. "We had created groups at Panchayat levels and tried to add the maximum number of people to these groups. A Panchayat in places like Tarari might have had more than 30 groups. It was not a one-way street and we addressed many queries on DM though this might prove time-consuming," he said. The CPI-ML, it must be noted, won 12 of the 19 seats they contested.
Similar views were shared by the RJD, which emerged as the single largest party in Bihar. They revealed how planning done two years ago came in handy.
“We had a membership plan in 2018, our workers collected mobile numbers at the village level and district level by visiting these places and listed 1 crore numbers. So this was a system we had been developing but not knowing that it would be useful now,” said Dr Nawal Kishore, national spokesperson for RJD.
Kishore reasoned that though the RJD social media handles have lakhs of followers across social media platforms, the reality of the situation was different.
“The internet connectivity in Bihar is around 37 per cent according to data and smartphone ownership is 27 per cent. That was the reality. In that situation, WhatsApp numbers helped or SMS too. We reached out to the people or at least to our workers. We shared social media posts and videos through them on Twitter and Facebook,” he added.
The BJP had earlier told media that they hired 9,500 IT cell heads as admins for around 72,000 WhatsApp groups at the booth levels to propagate speeches and videos of their leaders. The teams were monitored by the party's national IT cell, which supervised the whole campaign.
What about Twitter and Facebook?
Many Bihar leaders don’t have a verified Twitter account and even those who are on the microblogging site don’t enjoy the same following as leaders of other states. Twitter still remains a BJP-NDA bastion in the virtual world.
"Twitter is very urban-oriented. We were using it but not to a great extent. We had identified salient issues like unemployment which we felt could work well on Twitter. We created videos and other content highlighting these issues," Arun said.
RJD's Kishore, meanwhile, felt Twitter and Facebook both served their own distinct purposes. “Facebook has more of a general audience involving a large number of people whereas it was different for Twitter. On Facebook, large textual content like letters to people can be shared whereas on Twitter a word limit is there.
“But day to day issue-based, important statements went on Twitter and had more impact as newspapers picked these up. Both have different kind of impacts. When shared on Facebook, it was for the public. With Twitter, it has limited audience but they were impactful as the media picked up debates and posts,” he said.
YouTube was big
Videos on mobile phones are now big in India and Bihar was no exception.
“In Bihar, social media use is very less, mostly restricted to youngsters. But YouTube videos are popular. Often you see people watching them while travelling and many play news in Hindi and listen to the audio,” says Tumul Singh, a 23-year-old from Bihar.
A quick look at any of the major party's social media pages reinforces Tumul's observation. Every public meeting was available online along with professionally-made short clips designed to catch people's attention.
The CPI-ML used video messaging too. "We showed people what the ruling NDA had been claiming on burning issues like unemployment first. Then we fact-checked and dissected it with data," said Arun about the kind of videos that his team focuses on.
"We didn't have companies or consultancies running our social media strategy. We see social media as a tool to amplify the people's voice," said Arun.
His four-member team operated out of the Left party's Bihar office with two dedicated recruits exclusively focusing on content production.
"Our strategy was very decentralised. The team here in the capital didn't create the narrative. The content always came from the ground and the social media teams at the district level rerouted them here if needed," he said.
What did it mean for the leaders?
Having been CM for 15 long years, Nitish Kumar's social media presence is substantial. His Facebook page has got over 1.5 million likes while his Twitter followers' count tops 6 million.
Nitish's politics circled around social engineering and the big question was if the JDU camp could use social media to make young voters believe in him?
"Internet penetration in Bihar is relatively less compared to other states. The urban-rural divide in Bihar is lopsided towards the latter, so you had to have on-ground rallies and everything could not be online. Still, all leaders including Nitish and Tejashwi decided to go online for their first round of campaigning using social media. This was a good start for India as it shows even for states that are behind the curve, it is possible," observed Dr Samir Kapur, author of 'When India Votes'.
Half full Half empty
While many experts including Dr Kapur agree that there is limited internet penetration, RJD's Kishore suggested that an impact was made despite that.
“The data suggests limited usage but how I see it is if one person in a family has an Android phone, then the family can get feedback from that person. Just like we listen to songs or movies with family, if someone in a village sees a meeting, he or she can share it with friends. It has a multiplier effect,” the RJD spokesperson said explaining how it worked.
Kishore's leader Tejashwi Yadav has over 2.5 million and 1.5 million followers on Twitter and Facebook respectively. Tejashwi did not just set records when it came to holding rallies, he wasn't shy to converse with the people virtually too.
Apart from brief live videos, his campaign rallies across the state were streamed online and they were all well received.
When asked about the difference in impact created by social media in the short span between the Lok Sabha elections and Bihar Assembly elections, Kishore said, “In 2019, it was a different situation, we approached the people mostly through meetings.
“But this time, we reached out both in person and on social media. If there was a meeting, party social media handles would go live at the same time. Be it Naukari Samvad or Yuva Samvad in the evening for 30 minutes, it was conducted using FB or Twitter live extensively,” the spokesperson added.
The JD(U) hosted weekly lives and streams the Chief Minister's virtual meetings. They shared slogans, graphics and videos though their reach paled in comparison to that the BJP commands.
When it came to PM Modi's party, they divided Bihar into 5,500 mandals and 9,500 Shakti Kendras. Each Shakti Kendra was asked to monitor the functioning of six to seven booths. A major component of BJP's social media strategy was highlighting the development achieved by the central government under the PM, those following the campaign said.
Dr Kapur said the BJP was wise to strategise social media and use it to take their pro-people schemes to the people. This worked in their favour. "We can't say social media influenced the vote in Bihar but of course it helped the BJP raise an awareness that their CM and PM worked for the poor," he said.
In the first big post-Covid election in India, both the major fronts made all their launches via virtual rallies. "Probably for the first time, the relatively backward state could not escape the onslaught of social media - partly due to forced circumstances and also because of the millennials and youth," said Dr Kapur.
"Social media people to be more creative. It is going to catch momentum throughout the country and this is a good beginning," he added.
Asked what worked the most during the campaigning, Dr Kishore said, "Small videos, I felt, have the capacity to make most impact. One to three-minute videos with proper messaging. These prove easy to forward as well. Then, pictures with quotes do well too."
Going forward, social media strategy for political parties will be to inform, engage and influence, said Dr Kapur. He was positive that after holding virtual rallies and teleconferences, political parties will soon experiment with Augmented and Virtual reality in future polls.
"In future, there can be no political campaign sans social media as an important medium. While the informing part served better in Bihar this time, increased internet penetration would lead to higher engagement and more experiments," he said.
RJD – Short videos almost every alternative post, high moments of Tejashwi’s rallies
JDU – Live videos of meeting lasting over 20 mins, less short content or photo posts
BJP (Bihar handles) – Short videos of Modi speeches, photo posts of Modi